Wednesday, 18 December 2013


If spectacle is your bag and you think that it's enough to make or break a film on its own, you get that a-plenty here - both as natural landscape and as CGI-produced features and structures.
This 'middle one' of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, like the first episode, left me not caring that much about what was going on, because I simply couldn't follow it all. I've read the book twice (and LOTR at least five times). Not that it matters, as the film trilogy of 'The Hobbit' is so far expanded out of the source material from which it derives as to bear little relationship to it other than the title and the basic idea. But I'm not exactly complaining about that.

Ian McKellan and Orlando Bloom are two of the stalwarts of the franchise who turn up again here, joined for the second time by Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, all joined by several faces particularly recognisable to British audiences.

I would be no less informed about the plot if there were no dialogue at all. A lot of that which there is, to me now sounds like pretentious doggerel , as though one has got to be 'in the know' to follow what's happening. Notwithstanding that, a lot of the action (with some brilliantly-created monsters of various species)  is good fun, chases galore, fights, battles, a bit of amusing slap-stick. I must give credit to the inventiveness of some of the antics - and the special effects cannot be praised too highly. On the other hand I once again experienced a few yawn-inducing longueurs, though I don't think there were as many as in the first film.

I'd already forgotten how the first part had finished, and I hadn't been interested enough to have my memory prodded. I reckon that by the time the final part mercifully appears I'll also have forgotten the 'cliffhanger' that concludes this part.

There's no doubt that this trilogy is turning into a major achievement, though in no way eclipsing the 'Ring' films, which I found much more entertaining, probably because I was more familiar with those books, and those films were an attempt, largely successful, to transfer that story to the cinema screen. 'The Hobbit' trilogy, by blowing it up so far, contains more of Jackson and his writers than it does of Tolkien, simply taking the latter's characters and creating an extended story for them. But that's cinema for you, which is fair enough.

If one is a great fan of this franchise then this film will have everyone one hopes for - interesting and varied characters (though only very few are female), no shortage of thrills with some astonishing camera work (particularly impressive in 3D). I've mentioned my reservation with the script but if one has a keener interest than I own maybe it is possible to make some sense of the gobbledygook.  

I will be going to see the final part, though not with any great enthusiasm - just to be able to say "I've seen it!"
In terms of achieving a level of entertainment for me personally, I award 'The Hobbit - Part II'.............4.

Added one day after writing above: 
As a result of Walt's comment (WCS) below, I referred back to the review I wrote for Part I of 'The Hobbit' in December 2012 and, to my deep embarrassment, find that, contrary to what I say above, I was fulsomely positive about that film, even going on to award it a 7/10 - and furthermore, saying that I was actually looking forward to its sequel! (Ouch!) But it would be unforgivably mendacious to alter the above review upwards (or downgrade last year's) so, with abject apologies for my inconsistency and faulty memory, I have decided, albeit red-facedly, to let both stand.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013


Quite impressive film of a pivotal segment of Allen Ginsberg's early life, from 40-year old director John Krokidias, whose first full-length feature this is.

There can't be many people who don't know the names of, not only Ginsberg, but also Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, both the latter playing quite significant roles in this period of his life. But it's Lucien Carr, whom I didn't know much about (though I vaguely recognised the name) who was such a major influence on Ginsberg, and  I knew still less of the crime which exclusively takes up the final part of this film. It's Carr, along with Ginsberg, who has the lion's share of the film almost from the outset when the superficially callow Ginsberg arrives at Columbia University and Carr immediately becomes his mentor.  The latter's lack of respect for 'rules', both of authority and within the confines of poetry, is the catalyst which sparks Ginsberg to conduct himself in like free-thinking manner. Their mutual sympathies in this direction lead, naturally enough, to an intellectual relationship, rather than one that is physically expressed. But the major complication is Carr's previous, older relationship, who is unable to let him go. The downward spiral of the latter's desperation includes a most distressing (for me) incident involving a cat, which is going to echo in my mind for a long time, even though it's seen as being rescued before any harm befell it.

Daniel Radcliffe does a fairly good job as Ginsberg, though I personally would have preferred some actor who was far less known in this major role as it was not helped one bit by Radcliffe wearing spectacles throughout the film, inevitably resonating with another role. It needed me to take a great leap of faith to see him as someone who took so easily to various drug and drink indulgences. Maybe other viewers don't have that difficulty.

I thought Dane DaHaan (upper left) as Carr was brilliant, as was Michael C. Hall as his priggish but attractive (bear-like) older former lover - though I'm going to find it hard to dismiss the latter's action with the cat, film or not!
I was rather less convinced by Jack Huston as Kerouac, whose 'free-spiritedness' seemed a bit forced, and Ben Foster as a very dour, very knowing, young William Burroughs who, as portrayed here, didn't seem to accord with the much older Burroughs whom I know through his later books. (Must confess I've read very little of the works of Ginsberg and Kerouac).

I don't know how I managed not to have recognised Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ginsberg's mentally damaged mother until the final credits showed, but I didn't.

I really liked the style of the film, particularly for the first hour in its capturing the disparate nature of the characters' 'lawlesnesss of minds' - featuring jazz in thickly smoky atmospheres, taking in druggy effects. Once the crime is revealed the direction of the film becomes strongly focussed, and I thought it was slightly less successful in conveying what was going on inside the players' minds.

I don't know if many people who know nothing of the actual persons depicted in this film will have the motivation to see it. It's certainly not what might be regarded as 'mainstream'. But, all in all, any reservations that I do have cannot detract from my opinion that this is a good film..............7.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Film: 'CARRIE'

It would have been a tall order to expect anyone to better Brian De Palma's 1976 version of this very early Stephen King novel, which has an assured place in my 'All Time Top 100 Films'. This one doesn't improve on it, and by some margin, but it's still not without some merit.

I didn't know the name of either director Kimberly Peirce nor of the young actress in the title role, one Chloe Grace Moretz, though I now see that the latter did appear in 'Hugo' and 'Kick-Ass'.

The film is the tale of Carrie White who, on reaching puberty with her first period (quite 'publicly' at high school) finds that she has telekinetic powers, which operate both involuntarily when she's emotionally charged or, as she discovers, she can operate at will. She lives alone with her religiously-fanatic and near-demented, Bible-toting mother who is fixated on the notion that we're all born into sin, though women especially grievously so - and who strives to force her daughter to accept it.
Carrie is seen as something of an 'ugly duckling' at school, ridiculed by her female classmates and their boyfriends, when a jape is played by inviting her to attend the school prom at which she's to be cruelly humiliated in front of all.

Moretz, as Carrie, is several years younger than Sissy Spacek was for De Palma, and is therefore closer to being the authentically-aged girl which King had in mind in his story. I thought she carried it off very well.
Julianne Moore (one of the reasons I bothered going to see this) plays her part with most of her religious feelings pent up inside whereas Piper Laurie in the 1976 version was much more demonstrative in her loopiness. I have to say that I thought the latter was the more effective of the two, conveying better the histrionics we still see in current day evangelism.

In the pivotal scene at the prom, De Palma showed off a whole range of cinematic tricks - split-screen, filtered-out sounds, slow motion - all of which worked brilliantly. Some of these are also employed at the same moment by Peirce, though not the use of split-screen. When Carrie wreaks havoc with her revenge for the extreme prank played on her I think that this new film had no alternative but to try to outdo De Palma in spectacular effects, which it does.

Incidentally, I'd hoped that with additional sensitivities of a later generation (so I thought) the pig-slaughtering scene would be a little less graphic than in the earlier film. Unfortunately not so.

By the way, when the 1976 was first released, among the cast was a hitherto unknown name (at least to cinema audiences) of a certain John Travolta. It wasn't highlighted in the opening credits, his name being just included among the rest of the cast. Then, a few years later in the wake of the screen success of 'Grease', 'Carrie' was given a cinema re-release but now with the opening credits re-vamped to show Travolta as one of the  main stars, despite his role not being that big. I think it was on the lines of - "And featuring JOHN TRAVOLTA"!

I only saw this film because of Julianne Moore's presence plus the fact that there was a Senior Citizens' screening for just £3.50. If it wasn't that good it wasn't too much to lose - besides, I have to confess to being a bit curious as to whether it could compare with the earlier version. As it turned out, with no regrets at having made the effort, I give the 2013 'Carrie' a.............6.

Monday, 9 December 2013


This has been an exceptional year for a high proportion of 'quality' films - and here's yet another to join that select number, which it does with ease.

Alexander Payne is justly gaining quite a reputation for directing really worthwhile films. In recent years we've had 'The Descendants', 'Sideways', 'About Schmidt' - and this latest one just about sets the seal on his being a name to watch and whose films can be anticipated with pleasure.

Bruce Dern plays the edge-of-senility husband and father who is taken in by an advertising scam which, he thinks, informs him that he's won a million dollars. He won't take persuading from his younger son (Will Forte, a name I didn't know, and not at all bad-looking) on the reality of the company's ruse, designed just to push their magazines. His son, unable to convince him, agrees to take him the two-day drive to Lincoln to enable him to collect the prize to which he thinks he's due. En route, circumstances force them to detour to stay a while in the small town of Hawthorne with his brother and wife, with their two burly, scoffing, adult sons (like Tweedledum/dee). One evening in a bar, despite his son's warning not to do so, the father lets out that he's on his way to collect his prize winnings, and it doesn't take long for word to get around. He not only finds himself surrounded by new 'friends' but old relatives and acquaintances come out of the woodwork, directly or indirectly hoping or excepting to join in his good fortune, including Stacey Keach who expresses his own expectation more like a threatening demand. All this to the son's frustration, even when he tells them all that his father is mistaken. They are joined in Hawthorne by June Squibb, Dern's dutiful wife who's ever ready with her acid tongue to cut anyone down, Dern not least.

Small-town America is brilliantly observed in this film. Hawthorne is a world where just about everybody knows everybody else - as well as their mostly being past retirement age. (The average age of the cast must be over 60, I reckon). The cast is all excellent. The script is on its toes - and mostly very funny. (It could have been condescending to the old generation but it isn't). And what a correct choice it was to film it in monochrome - so right! - and the big-sky, flat landscapes are breathtaking.

It's a very unusual storyline, and one which holds the attention throughout. It gives one heart to know that there are these little stories out there in someone's imagination and that we don't need to be ever subjected to banalities to entertain us.

If I did think that 'Nebraska' drooped ever so slightly near the end it would in no way prevent my giving it overall a hearty recommendation. It's another one that scrapes the ceiling with an..................8

Wednesday, 4 December 2013


Very enjoyable film, with a broad spectrum of moods, high and low.
To prepare myself for this I re-read 'Mary Poppins' so as to be better informed on the subject matter, though my first read was only a comparatively recent 12 years ago.

This film tells of Walt Disney's personal tussle with authoress P.L.Travers in order for him to acquire the film rights to her book, and her direct and obstructive interventions to prevent his and his team's depictions of book and title character straying from the way she'd envisaged them. Her displeasure at discovering that the film is to be not only a musical, but is also to feature scenes of animation, are well and amusingly conveyed. It's a most interesting story which I did know just a little about, though my scant knowledge was further filled in by a rather engrossing BBC TV programme a few evenings ago about the real Travers.

Emma Thompson, though looking nothing like the real-life person she portrays, does a marvellous job, conveying Travers' querulousness and obstinacy to perfection. I've yet to see Thompson fail to give a stand-out performance, and here she does it again. (Incidentally, during the close of the final credits an audio tape extract is played of the real Travers arguing with the film team about her demands for the look of the film - and it's clear that Thompson doesn't exaggerate her manner one jot).
Tom Hanks, despite the make-up team's best efforts, still looks like Tom Hanks, but he does put real flesh onto someone whom, to those of my generation, always seemed a somewhat aloof, rather sketchy figure, and even just a bit questionable in his motives, though there was nothing we knew then or now to suggest that there was really anything shady going on - at least that what I felt even before we had Michael Jackson taking troupes of young kids to Disneyland.
Colin Farrell, in regular flashbacks by Travers to her childhood in Australia, plays her wavy-haired, very affectionate father whom she adores, even though she's aware of his drink problem. I don't think I've seen Farrell play such a kindly, soft-hearted character before, and he does it quite convincingly.

It's a very entertaining film (directed by John Lee Hancock), alternately comic and profoundly moving. It attempts to show us what made Travers 'tick' and from whence her Poppins character was derived. There may well be over-simplifications in the way this is explained but I can accept that as being part of the liberties taken as 'film-speak'. Besides, it's intended to amuse and/or involve its viewers and it does that admirably.

By the way, those familiar with the book will know that Bert (as played by Dick Van Dyke in the 1964 film) is only a marginal character who appears for about 8 pages - and he's not a sweep anyway! Likewise, Mr and Mrs Banks, the former of which is very prominent in the film, are even more peripheral in the book.

When I first saw the Poppins film nearly (goodness me!) fifty years ago, although I did like it I wasn't really as overly enthusiastic as most of my contemporaries were. I thought it seemed to date rapidly on screen, and when another Sherman brothers product, 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' came out four years later (also, of course, with Dick Van Dyke, though this time not from Disney) I rated it as being the superior of the two. Even now it looks quite fresh. It must, however, be said that for songs and music, 'Poppins' was the Shermans' real triumph. It's a brilliant score with very strong songs throughout. However, in spite of that and even despite these same brothers' songs for 'Jungle Book', I'd still make a claim that the score of 'Chitty' is pretty damn good.
But that's all beside the point for now. Not having seen 'Poppins' for something like thirty years it's more than high time for a re-viewing - and possibly for a re-appraisal, which could see my opinion being revised upwards - just like a kite!

For originality, fun, deep emotion and very fine acting I award 'Saving Mr Banks' a robustly healthy.............8.

Thursday, 28 November 2013


It was only because, having to go to Brighton, I thought that being there I might as well pop in for this film. It's a matter-of-fact view of the events in Dallas immediately following the Kennedy assassination (as though we were wanting still more!), released to coincide with the recent anniversary. The reviews I'd seen indicated that it was a fairly efficient though perfunctory  effort.

A reconstruction of the few hours following the fatal shots, with concentrations on the 'Parkland' hospital where Kennedy (as well as Oswald, later) was taken  - as well as the aftermath of the unwitting filming of the event by Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giametti). Others in the cast include Billy Bob Thornton, Zac Ephron and Marcia Gay Harden, they and others playing characters who were absolutely central to the drama, but all of whom, through history, are now relegated to being peripheral figures.

There's a protracted, bloody scene in the hospital as they try to hold onto the President's life - and another one much later when attempts are made to save Oswald.
There wasn't much here that was new to me, though what was new (or I may have forgotten about it) was Oswald's brother and his dreadful and scary mother's differing reactions to the news of first the shooting, and then of Lee Oswald's death. Oddly, it was at such moments that for me the film's tension, such as it was, drooped most noticeably.

What I did like about the film was that it didn't attempt to analyse or rationalise the events - or offer different versions of 'the truth', Mrs Oswald notwithstanding. We've had more than enough of that for half a century, thank you  The film, to its credit, just played everything out as though witnessed by a dispassionate observer.

I'm sure that generations to come will continue to be fascinated by the subject. I think I've had just about enough of it as I can take, and happily leave it to future, wiser heads than mine to conjecture further - and there's little doubt but that they will......................................5.5.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013


Sequel to last year's 'Hunger Games', there is little that is new about this one, directed by Francis Lawrence. It's one of those films which makes me feel evermore alienated from a mainstream cinema audience. A glitzy and vulgar public ceremony (which I can readily accept) leads up to a test of survival skills for a number of previously victorious competitors fighting it out to the death, both amongst themselves as well as against a manufactured hostile environment -  for the ostensible purpose of crowd-pleasing 'entertainment', though with the more sinister underlying motive of control of the masses.

With sentimental episodes, complete with music pointing to the emotion one ought to feel, it mirrors the first film in that the first half is all about the build-up to the 'Games', sketching out, very roughly, the characters - participants and organisers - with concentration unsurprisingly on the Jennifer Lawrence character, which she plays brilliantly, by the way - and the ensuing hour or more, which is the 'Games' itself. And 'games' is the operative word as time and again I was thinking that the whole concept reminded me of a computer game where lives are disposable and one tries to win at all costs (within pre-ordained rules, of course). Well, one's own life is at stake, after all.

I found it a film brutal to the point of nastiness, but that is precisely what the game is intended to portray.
Good to see Donald Sutherland again, and Stanley Tucci too, as M.C. (even more outrageous than before), Woody Harrelson - and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is a formidable presence in whatever film he appears.

Can't believe that I gave the first film a rating of 7.5. I did think higher of it than this one, though part of that will have been due to the novelty of the concept. Witnessing exactly the same formula all over again was borderline boring. Can't see myself mustering much enthusiasm for the next in the series, though I probably will go. Or will I?

I give 'Catching Fire'  a.........................4.5.

Friday, 22 November 2013

How I heard the news........

Most of those who read this blog would not yet have been born on this day - and of those who were, very few will have been old enough to remember it. So here is a little indication of how it felt to this writer.

Fifty years ago today (also a Friday) I was 17. I'd left school that Summer and was two months into my first job as trainee accountant, at that stage a mere errand-running dogsbody.

On the actual day I'd have been home about one hour, had had my dinner and, at around around 6.45 p.m., was watching TV alone, my mother being in the back living room with my grandmother.
At that time there were only two TV channels, BBC and ITV (the commercial station).
I'd have watched the national news (nothing of note that day) and was probably then watching the succeeding local news, with diminished attention.
Then the sound of my mum hurriedly coming up the hallway, calling out to me - "President Kennedy's been shot!" (She'd had the radio on in the other room. There'd been no announcement yet on TV, which was carrying on normally.) My blood froze. I can still feel it. I can't recall what I said but it was probably something like "How is he?" and she would have replied "They haven't said yet."
I felt paralysed, willing the TV to say something, - anything!  - while I was switching between the two channels.
It would have been just a couple of minutes later when, mid-programme, an announcer appeared telling us what my mum had said. He'd been shot but had survived and was being rushed to hospital.
At that time I and my whole family were devoutly religious, and I may well have got down on my knees to pray that he'd be okay.

It was a very big deal for us Catholics that JFK, being the first and so far only R.C. President, should be seen to be as successful and popular - and in our eyes up to then he had been  - while also being such a perfect family man! In fact he was head of a model, good, Catholic family. We always felt particularly proud whenever his name was mentioned, though we were also aware of his increasingly vociferous critics, which I dismissed as coming from 'sour grape Protestants'.
It hardly needs repeating here, it being so often documented, that at that time we hadn't the slightest clue about the realities of his private life, nor of the truth of his lifelong difficult medical condition. He was a hero for so many of us, the closest to a Superman that we had ever seen. He was all set to become a truly outstanding President.

Meanwhile on TV the announcer said that we'd be kept informed if there were any developments in the story, and the interrupted programmes returned. Of course my mind couldn't take in anything else on TV. I kept switching channels until - maybe something like 45 mins later, an announcer re-appeared to repeat the news when the telephone beside him rang. He picked it up....."Yes......yes......okay."  He replaced the receiver and, to the camera, "We regret to inform you that President Kennedy has died." Nothing else. The screen faded to dark. It was a hammer blow even though there was an inevitability about it.  (I was wondering why he seemed to be smiling as he made the announcement. But on reflection I don't seriously think it was a smile - more a 'pained expression', which under the pressure of the moment might have been capable of being misinterpreted.)
It was ITV who had beaten the BBC to the announcement. I switched to BBC and a good 5 minutes or more later their own regular news-reader appeared, grim-visaged, to tell us what we had already just heard.

The BBC showed their daytime test card over silence - then, all of a sudden, music, which I recognised as the opening movement of Bach's Orchestral Suite Number 3 in D, an unfortunately-chosen, gloriously jubilant sound, complete with celebratory trumpets and triumphant drums (very likely the first track on a classical music record which they happened to have on hand). ITV, after a similar few minutes silence, showed a recording of a classical concert, Sir John Barbirolli conducting Brahms' Variations on the St Anthony Chorale', a slightly less insensitive choice.
What happened then on BBC I thought was little short of a scandal. After maybe half an hour of classical music as a background to the static test-card, they returned to its normal programming schedule - and actually screened, unbelievably, two situation comedies, back to back - Harry Worth (a big-name English comedian of the time) and 'The Rag Trade' (with Miriam Karlin and Sheila Hancock), both pre-recorded with canned laughter.
I thought at the time that that was unforgivable. There was strident criticism in the papers the following day, pointing out that even Soviet Radio and TV had cancelled all their programmes in order to play solemn music for the remainder of the night.
We were later to learn that on this fateful day all the BBC big-wigs happened to be away together attending a conference on the other side of the world and had been unreachable. There'd been no one left behind in London to make a high-level decision as to what to do. I believe that because of what happened there are now contingency plans always in place to ensure that no such fiasco ever recurs.

The ensuing days are less clear to me. Masses for Kennedy's soul were being held all over the country and I attended one at my local parish church.
I remember feeling that the funeral seemed to be taking place with immoderate haste, and looked somewhat disorganised. All the major world leaders were there but I searched in vain for even just a glimpse of our then Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who did actually attend but was nowhere to be seen on film. It was French President Charles De Gaulle who was pre-eminently conspicuous.

Then it was over. Johnson had been sworn in as President within minutes of Kennedy's death being announced. Shortly afterwards Oswald himself was shot. Life tried to return to something like it was before even though there was a chunk of it missing. I carried around for some time a heavy feeling of the injustice of it all. Why did God allow it to happen? (Good question!)

During the passing of the last five decades revelations have come out about the personal lives of the Kennedys which we never dreamt could be so at the time, and which was, frankly, a severe disappointment to a lot of us. Do I think that I'd have reacted differently had I known? Yes and no. There is still no doubt that whatever his many personal foibles were JFK was the most magnetic leader I've known in my lifetime. The 'electricity' poured out of him, right through the TV screen - and there's been no one who has come even near that since - maybe Obama before he started having to make disappointing compromises, and perhaps Blair at the beginning, before we realised what a hopeless let-down he would turn out to be. But Kennedy's star, to my mind, outshines them all by far. He was 'charisma' itself.
In the days following the shooting we'd heard how, in a school somewhere in the southern States, a grinning teacher had gleefully announced the assassination to the assembled pupils, and the children clapped and cheered. I'm sure it wasn't unique. But I'm also sure it wasn't typical.

Within a very few years after this event Kennedy's reputation started turning big-time sour, in fact that of all the Kennedy's. (Not helped at all later by Edward and Chappaquiddick.) When Jackie Kennedy announced her intention to marry Greek multi-millionaire magnate and divorcee, Aristototle Onassis, the Church's disapproval was unambiguous, culiminating on her wedding day itself by the Vatican denouncing her as a 'public sinner'.
Re-appraisals of JFK's political legacy came thick and fast, mainly claiming that his radical credentials had been exaggerated and that his successor, Johnson, had actually been a greater President. There is no doubt that the latter was the one who had steered civil rights legislation through to its fulfilment, though would Kennedy have managed that anyway if he had survived? His political enemies were, at the time of the assassination, flexing their muscles for a fight to the end. His sudden death put them back in the box for while.
Robert Kennedy's politics were also being called into question long before he himself was gunned down in 1968.

And yet, half a century later, 1963 was a time of 'innocence' for which I still feel nostalgic, whilst being aware that it cannot return. The world has moved on too far for it to be repeated, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

On my only visit to the USA in 1969 I managed to make a visit to Arlington cemetery to see the grave with the eternal flame (and with Bobby's then as yet unconstructed grave set off slightly to the side). I recall being close to tears standing at the stone monument with his (or, more likely, his speechwriters') most-quoted words carved into them, six years after the event - and something of that same sadness remains in me even now.

This day 50 years ago will undoubtedly stay with me for my remaining time, and its power won't diminish now. It's poignant like few other memories. It's also a beautiful memory. Nothing in world affairs has left its mark on my mind like that event - and, while naturally profoundly regretting the tragedy itself,  I value enormously the experience of having lived through that time.